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Intrepid Gorillas, Chapter Seven. The Gorillas of Rwanda

In this, the apex chapter of my safari to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, I will tell you about what can honestly be called a once in a lifetime experience. I trekked up a mountain to see the gorillas in the mist, and I do not mean the movie.

This is a walking stick the park provides you for the trek. Don’t try the hike without it. The gloves are not related to the temperature, I needed them because of the stinging thistles. I followed all the suggestions, and had a wonderful experience.

Curse Dian Fossey! couldn’t she have found some cute endangered species somewhere near a metro stop?
In order to see the gorillas, the entire purpose of 16 days riding on a cargo truck, you had to follow a guide, an armed man (there in case some other animal did not want you there), and two trackers. The trackers have an incredible job. They must follow the gorillas all day, then go back the next day and see where they have moved to, so that the guide can take the tourists to them. They move about a half kilometer a day before building new nests for the night.
The hike up the mountain was through impenetrable jungle, steep, slippery and boot sucking mud, stinging thistles and heat. I mean steaming, energy soaking heat. Just about the time my body was starting to rebel, the guide whispered  “the silverback is very close, shhhh.” I said out loud “yeah, where?”
He pointed behind me and there he was, a foot behind me, this incredible hunk of an animal. He actually brushed up against me as he went on his way, not at all worried that I was there.
Suddenly my fatigue was replaced with splendor. I reached for my camera and got a shot of him as he moved on.

This is the primary Silverback of the group named Charles Charles. He brushed past me and headed back into the thickets.

Then his family followed him. Two mature mamas a few teenagers and two babies. One of the babies was only a month old, the other seven months.

Mama with the month old baby which does not have a name yet. I wanted to name him Marley,

None of them paid any attention to us. Charles was leading them to a new feeding ground.
This group, our group, my group now, is called the Umubano group  Interestingly all 800 gorillas left in the world have a name. The park has a naming ceremony every year to welcome the new babies. Because of the conservation efforts made possible by each of us paying US$500 apiece to take this hike, (soon to go up to US$750) the gorilla population has been on the rise ever since Fossey did her work. The total population then was about 130. If I ever win the lottery I intend to donate to the foundation and have a baby gorilla named Forrest. Meanwhile anyone can help by joining the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.
Following the gorillas is hard work, but they leave a trail of destruction as they eat their way through the jungle. They eat just about anything.

A teenager enjoying a bamboo shoot.

There are two very strict rules to adhere to when you trek into the gorillas.First, if you have as much as a cold,you are not welcome to go. Second, you are supposed to stay 7 meters awy from them. This second rule is impossible to follow, because these guys come right up to you. They are not afraid of humans anymore. The tourists arrive about the same time everyday and I honestly think that they regard us as some sort of a protecting force.

The babies like to look at themselves in the mud puddles as if to say “what do these humans see in us?”

My favorite picture out of 1200 I took on this safari. This is the senior female in the family. I have nicknamed her “Miss Rwanda”

Many more of my gorilla photos can be seen here.

I hope  you enjoyed this post. Please tell a friend and share.

Intrepid Gorillas, Chapter Two

 We climbed into the truck for our first agonizing day on the road. Our destination was Lake Nakura. I had been there a year ago to the day. You can go back in my blogs to see what a wonderful experience I had there and see lots of photos of the wild life and birds.
On this Intrepid travel trip we camped out. The tents were manufactured by Rube Goldberg Enterprises. They weighed a ton. In this modern day of pop-up tents that are lightweight, I cannot imagine why Intrepid still used tents like these.
The campground was occupied by a gang of baboons. A group of baboons is correctly called a troop. Often they are called a congress, but only to make fun of the United States government.

They were a fearless troop and came right up to us to pose.

This campsite was what you would call rustic, or basic. The “facilities” were an outhouse with what Intrepid calls a “long drop” toilet. what is commonly called a squat toilet.  On Monday morning in the campsite workers were building a new latrine, supposedly with toilets you can sit down instead of crouch and a cold water shower, major improvements. While the workers toil, they are “protected” from the huge troop of baboons by a woman with a slingshot.

She was a good shot, the baboons knew it and stayed away from the workers

The baboons  love to come to this campsite in search of whatever they can run off with. I saw one who had stolen a wifebeater. He  was trying to put it on. He got as far as over his neck and one arm thru an armhole. I was pulling for him to get it all the way on, when another bigger baboon came and ripped it off of him.
We went on a game drive. Lake Nakura is a great place to do that. It is a national park with good roads, and a lot of wild life.

This little guy decided to jump on board the truck and ride along with us. It turned out he could not contribute to the kitty, so we kicked him off.

Last  time I was in Kenya, I saw four of the “Big Five” game animals. The big five is a phrase coined by game hunters for the  most difficult animals to hunt on foot. It is now used by safari marketing people to encourage you to keep looking until you  have seen all five. When you do I think you qualify for the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom award and a signed photo of Marlin Perkins. The one I missed out on last time was the White Rhino. Some sources say the Black Rhino is in the Big Five, I saw one of those last year and was told I did not get my Big Five merit badge until I saw a White Rhino, so I had to come back to Africa. Well, this time I did!

He was magnificent.

We were also treated to a little sex act by a couple lions. It is after all breading season and no truckload of gawkers is gonna stop the king of the jungle!

Lake Nakura National Park is also home to 420 species of magnificent birds. Scroll back in my blog posts to June of last year and find many photos of beautiful birds.

Here it is, from a year ago.

http://theothersideofthecoconut.com/2011/06/13/lake-nakuru-flamingos-hippos-and-baboons-oh-my/

This was a well thought out and informative day in the trip by Intrepid!

Stay tuned for more, including the source of the Nile and gorillas.

Tell a friend and share on Facebook! Asante san.

Intrepid Gorillas, Chapter One

A while back, Travel Bloogers Unite and Intrepid Travel announced a contest to go on a Safari in Africa to, among other things, trek into the jungle and see the Mountain Gorillas. These are the giant gentle critters that were brought to the world’s attention by Dian Fossey.

I entered the contest and somehow, maybe I was the only person who entered, I won.

This was a 16 day safari through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and back. I had taken a wonderful safari exactly a year prior and I could not imagine that Africa had changed much, but I wanted to see the gorillas. So I accepted and signed on.

I must say that being  I  had won this trip and I was a guest of Intrepid Travel, I want to be nice. I want to be gracious. I’ll try, but this is after all an IRREVERENT TRAVEL BLOG. So I am going to tell it as I saw it. Please be aware this was my first and only experience with Intrepid, so pardon my ignorance.

First I want to deal with the name of the company INTREPID TRAVEL. Intrepid can be defined as audacious, brave, dauntless, and unfearing. Intrepid Travel is none of the above, except at times audacious. I’ll cover this audacious thing a few times in following posts. For now let me say that when I was young, I traveled in a much more intrepid manner. I went where I wanted, when I wanted to with no agenda except being sure I was back at University when classes started. When I set out I had a few destinations in mind, but transportation and lodging were all adhoc.

When you travel with Intrepid, every moment of every day is professionally  planned out for you, using years of experience a a guideline.  Where you are going, what you will eat, what you will see and where you will sleep are pre-ordained and as sacred as scripture to a Baptist. That is not really a complaint. It is very convenient for most people. Please remember, this was my first experience with Intrepid and I am certainly not too proud to say I am ignorant of the other thousand trips they offer.

The adventure started with the hotel Intrepid assigned us to upon our arrival in Nairobi. I will not say much about it except that I gave it the lowest level review possible on Tripadvisor. It felt great to vent my spleen there, I will resist doing it for my faithful readers here.

The group met for the first time on Sunday night before our Monday departure. We introduced ourselves to each other and ponied up the per-person US$1250 kitty. Very cute of Intrepid to call this a kitty. What it really is is the second half of the cost of the trip. You pay  the first half  when you register and that  is nonrefundable. That was the part I won. The trip notes clearly stated that they would not accept anything other than US$, and only in currency minted after 2003. Well, one of my hundred dollar bills was minted in ’96, and I figured, they cannot be too serious. They were. They would not accept it. Nor, as it turns out would it pass muster anywhere in Kenya.

As the group started the self intros, “hi, my name is…” stuff, one guy immediately started in on what I would learn to be an incessant urge to prove he was the smartest person on the trip. He told us all that he had convened with the world’s leading authority on tropical diseases and that we should all be taking one of three malaria medicines. I have been in malaria regions enough to know that if you are paranoid, use a lot of deet.

The group went to have dinner together, in the hotel restaurant.  People compared travel notes and expectations for our safari. When someone asked me why I was there I said that I had won the trip, and all I wanted to see were the gorillas.  “What about the game drives, all the animals?’ someone asked. “Been there done that, bring on the gorillas” was my response.

The average age of people on Intrepid trips is 36. This trip was probably right in that neighborhood. The oldest was a 77 year old woman from New Zealand, who by the end of the safari I rated as the heartiest of the bunch.

We somehow got a good night’s sleep. The next morning we met at “the truck”. I was only half surprised, the trip notes DID say it was truck, not a bus,

Yup, this would be the center of my life for the next 16 days. A close inspection revels it is nothing more than a flat bed truck designed to carry a 40 foot shipping container. It had “specially designed”  box built on it with storage for back packs and chairs to sit in. I spent about 90 hours in this damn thing on very poor African roads, swaying and bouncing and slamming against the windows like a rag doll in a washing machine. “Intrepid?”

Please do not be discouraged about reading the next chapters of this trip. In all, it was a wonderful experience, definitely outside my normal way of traveling, so any snide comments or cheap jokes I make are just me being irreverent. Intrepid is a very professional organization, and I thank them.

Please read on. When I take you with me into see the gorillas, you’ll know why you came, I sure did.

Out of Africa

With sincere apologies to Karen Blitzen, I used that title to attract readers, a brazen move to be sure.

The more you get to know about any subject, the more you realize you do not know about the subject. Some smart guy said that once, I think he was Greek.

I know a lot more about Kenya after one week as a tourist than I did before, that’s for certain. I now have deep desire to learn a whole lot more.

We were “on safari.”  From Wikipedia: A safari is an overland journey, usually a trip by tourists to Africa. Traditionally, the term is used for a big-game hunt, but today the term often refers to a trip taken not for the purposes of hunting, but to observe and photograph animals and other wildlife. There is a certain theme or style associated with the word, which includes khaki clothing, belted bush jacketspith helmets or slouch hats, and animal skins. Entering the English language in the late 19th century, the word safari means “long journey” in Swahili. Originally from the Arabic (safar) meaning a journey .

Yes, we wore khaki. We read before we left that mosquitoes boycott khaki. Luckily khaki is a popular color among the Indian and Pakistani workers here in the UAE, so I was able to buy mine at discount stores. No, I did not wear a pith helmet or a slouch hat. Ball caps for this boy, I’d wear one to the moon baby. No belted bush jacket, although I saw a lot of them on people and in the hotel gift shops, and I think they are pretty cool.  No Animal skins either. I guess I could have acquired an animal skin loin cloth and worn it like Johnny Weissmuller, but I’m sure my wife would have objected. She is much more levelheaded than I am.

Maybe she wouldn’t have objected if I looked like Johnny Weissmuller, but I digress.

We did take what amounted to a long journey, even though we were only in country for a week. We traveled south, then north, then south then north. We went from 2 degrees south of the equator, to 4 degrees, to ½ a degree, to 4 degrees and back to ½ a degree. We did not plan it, our tour agency did. I do not think the itinerary was established by availability of the lodges.  It was not high season yet and none of the lodges were full. Consequently I am not sure why we bounced up and down like a basketball.

However I have no complaints. Every drive we made was exciting. Every little town we passed through was in its own way colorful.

'twas the season for red onions. I never priced them, but...

...with entire streets of veggie stands loaded up with red onions, I cannot imagine them being expensive. The lodges all had red onions in the salads, of course.

The towns were separated by miles and miles of absolutely beautiful open country.  My mind, which sometimes works like a jukebox, started playing the old Who refrain “I can see for miles and miles.” Mary Ann who stares at a computer screen all day said “This is so good for my eyes.” Even in the big sky country of Montana, the vistas are broken up by the Rocky Mountains eventually. Not here.

The vistas just went on forever.

Kenya is not as clean as Hong Kong, but nowhere near as dirty as some other paces we have seen in our travels. It was only littered in small villages. The countryside was pristine. However, we did see a few plastic water bottles tossed on the ground in the parks. We even saw a baboon trying to drink from one. I was so humored that I forgot to get a photo, damn. But whoever disposes of anything, even a cigarette butt in a park should be fed to the hyenas.

Speaking of smoking…

Kenya is most definitely against smoking. They should just hang a no smoking sign at the immigration desk and write below it, Anywhere.  When we got to our first hotel, in Nairobi, I walked well away from the front door, across the driveway, and stood in some bushes to light up. I have learned to be this “respectful” of the no smoking fascists in the world, the ones who think if they SEE someone smoking they too will die of cancer. Anyway, just as I lit up, a hotel doorman came running across the driveway and said “You cannot smoke in public in Kenya. You can be arrested for that.”  I put out the cig and asked him “Is there anywhere I CAN smoke?”  He said, “By the pool.” The illogic of that aside, at least I had a place to indulge my habit without going to jail. For the rest of the trip, I hid behind buildings or elephants, snuck into cactus fields and otherwise obfuscated my custom.  I will digress here long enough to say that if someone bans cigarettes worldwide, I will somehow obtain them on the black market  and defiantly blow  smoke up the UNs arse.

The national language of Kenya is English. It is the primary language of instruction in school. Kenyans also speak Swahili, or a version of it they call Kiswahili. They also speak one of 40 or so tribal languages, such as Masai or Kikuyu.

The dominate religion is Christianity, at about 70%. Islam is second and Hindu third. Arab traders, mostly from Oman, came to what is now Kenya even before the Europeans, sometime in the first century A.D.  They stayed mainly on the coast, and that is where you will find most of the mosques. The Hindu religion was brought to Kenya by early traders, but mostly by the people building the railroad. At first, the majority of the Christians were Catholic. Catholicism was brought by The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. Portuguese and Spaniards never went anywhere without priests. Later when the Brits colonized Kenya, Protestant missionaries zealously came to save Kenyan souls from Papal dominance. They were fairly successful. The Christians in Kenya are anywhere from 35 to 50% Catholic now. That % is lowering as ecumenical zealots continue to recruit.

Maize is the primary vegetable staple, I asked our guide if he knew what they Masai ate before they had Maize. He said, “We have always had maize.” I then had to disappoint him and tell him that Maize did not exist in the Eastern hemisphere in pre-Columbian times (That and tobacco, so there) He was surprised to learn that. It was maybe the only question I stumped him on all week.

Coffee in Kenya is amazingly good. I have always believed the best coffee comes from Costa Rica, but I am now reconsidering. There is not a single Starbucks in Kenya, to my amazement. Starbucks stores worldwide often sell Kenyan coffee so I do not know why no store in Kenya. Kenyans will tell you that their beans are often blended with other country’s  beans to improve the taste. All I know is that it is wonderful, so I bought home a whole bunch of it.

 

If you ever saw the movie Out of Africa, you will remember that the main character had a coffee plantation. Her name was Karen Blixen. By the way, seems how I stole the title of this post,  I’ll tell you to read the book. The film is LOOSELY based on Karen Blixen’s masterpiece of a memoir. Her farm was just outside of Nairobi. There is a town there now, called…hmmm… Karen. There is a museum to her efforts as a single white woman to make it in a foreign culture where even the fellow expats, dominated by Great White Hunter types, was not easy. Karen is a very wealthy suburb now. Beautiful homes, a first rate mall and world class hospitals. In the movie Blixen is played by Meryl Streep and the role of Denys Finch Hatton is played by Robert Redford.

Both Streep and Redford would look good in rags. If I could carry off this safari look the way he did, I would have.

In the movie, Finch Hatton introduces the concept of travelling from hunt to hunt by plane. That idea still exists big time in Kenya. Now of course you travel between national parks on your airborne safari. Many very upscale lodges have their own airstrips, including one called Denys Finch Hatton Lodge www.finchhattons.com. I am not personally experienced with this lodge nor this level of luxury, so no endorsement, but check it out.

Not bad for a "tented lodge". You can sip champagne and watch the big game stroll in front of you wile sitting in a lounge chair.

The national beer, Tusker is damn good. it is about US$2.50 a bottle anywhere you go.

Whenever I am in a new country I look at it as a possible place to retire. Weather, cost of living, political stability, friendliness of the locals, and whether or not I can smoke in peace are all factors I consider. Kenya is now, without any truly deep investigation, second on my list behind Thailand, with a bullet.

I need to go back. I’ll wait until high season is over. This time I will go at a more leisurely pace and ask a lot more questions.

Just a couple more things. Overall, my new camera, A Nikon p7000 is an extremely good product. I am happy with my photos that I shared with you in the previous blogs. I said I was afraid they would all come oput looking like elephant dung.

So here is some fresh elephant dung to compare the rest of them too! Like I always say, a complete service blog!

One last thing. In all my travels I have shared the local versions of the washroom signs that can sometimes be confusing.

Outside the Hemingway bar, I walked past this sign, assuming it was the women's room...

Until I came to this sign.

Thanks for reading. Share this with your friends. And PLEASE make a comment.

Lake Naivasha, Crescent Island, Thousands of Birds and a Bloat

The day started with the return drive out of Masai Mara Park.  The only thing that made it tolerable was thinking back to what a marvelous piece of earth we had just visited. I want to return to Kenya, but I will not return to the Mara until they fix the road. If you are reading this blog with an eye towards your first trip to Kenya, definitely go to the Mara, but bring a pillow to sit on in your vehicle.

On the way out we went past a Land Rover sporting a logo for the Michigan State University Hyena Study Project. I did not get a photo, but you can Google it to find out that this project has been going on for something like twenty years . Many of the students ,mostly grad students working on a PhD in Hyena (I’m sorry, the job market there must be pretty thin) post stories to http://msuhyenas.blogspot.com. They are a good read. If they cannot find a job being head honcho Hyena researcher, they should try writing.

This is Gideon’s home territory. He showed us a set of four contingent lots he is buying in the first big town outside of the park. He bought the lots because they are building a Catholic University right next to where his lots are. He wants to build 4 houses to rent out to faculty. He is an industrious guy. He is the youngest of four sons to a decently wealthy Masai man. In Masai tradition, the youngest gets the biggest cut of the inheritance, but his father told him he would not get a single goat if he did not do well in school and go out and make his own living.

Gideon showing us his 4 lots, a future real estate magnate!

Once we got off the terrible road it was swift and comfortable trip to our next and final destination. Lake Naivasha. This is a popular expat enclave, few hours out of Nairobi. The lake is beautiful. Birds abound. It sits at 6,222 feet above sea level and less than ½ a degree south of the equator. Put all that together and it makes for a wonderful climate.

They should change the name of this place to NO SMOKING. They were really strict.

All that aside, the reason we came here is called Crescent Island. The island is the remnant of the top of the volcano that formed the lake. It is a private game reserve. Some rich guy owns it and he somehow got permission to relocate all types of non-predator animals from the rest of Kenya to this island.

You pay to get a boat ride and a guide to the island. Your boat trip passes thru thousands of water fowl, and herds of hippos. Actually a bunch of hippos is called a bloat. We saw three separate bloats, I think they were independent families, so maybe altogether they made one bloat. (Sorry about that, I just like using the word bloat. Try working it into a sentence with a friend in a bar.)

While I’m on this theme, and before I allow you to look at my pretty pictures, I feel I must let you know that a group of giraffes is called a tower. No, really. A group of hyena? A cackle. Here is a strange one, a group of wildebeest is called an implausibility. A group of baboons is called a troop, and a group of Zebras can be called a zeal or a dazzle. All that is only helpful if you are working on a PhD in safari guiding. A herd works fine doesn’t it.


White pelicans

White pelicans in flight. There many grey pelicans where I lived in Panama. These were bigger by about half.

A white pelican up close. Aint they cute? “A wonderful bird is the pelican, his bill will hold more than his belican….” By the way, a group of pelicans is called a pod.

The Sacred Ibis is often depicted in Egyptian art. They are a group of long-legged wading birds in the familyThreskiornithidae.

A cormorantA cormorant drying his wing after fishing. In a group they are called a flight. Boring.

A kingfisher.

Water Eagles in a tree on Crescent Island.

Our guide whistled to the eagles, then threw out a dead fish into the water. One of them left the tree, circled us and then dove down for his lunch. I was lucky enough to get the photo. I hope you enjoy it.

Ok now for the bloat.

A hippo family. Not something I see every day.

Papa hippo acted like he wanted yo board our little panga.

When we left him in our wake he let us know he was not happy.

Once you are on the island you walk amongst the animals.  It is not a huge island but I will bet there is more dung per acre here than anywhere else outside of a stock yard.

It is a close as you can get to zebra, gazelles, impalas, water bucks and giraffe anywhere. Basically the animals just let you and your camera invade their space. It is as if they know they are there for that particular reason.

Now you know why a group of the are called a tower!

A family of giraffe

Giraffe juveniles, A young giraffe is called a calf. Again, boring.

Momma girrafe letting me know I am getting too close to the calves. They look like sweethearts, but Gideon told us that their defensive kick can crush your skull. Mother giraffes are referred to as cows and fathers as bulls. Ah c'mon, someone come up with something original will'ya?

Momma leading the calves away from the damn human with his camera.

A zeal sharing space with a tower. You often see two, three of four distinct species together in the wild. They do not compete for food, and the provide a mutual early warning system against predators.

I actually have many more photos of the animals on Crescent Island. The new age of digital photography allows one to shoot like mad. But if I showed you more animals, I would probably bore you with more nomenclature.

In the morning we leave for Nairobi, and sadly make our way “out of Africa.”  Final thoughts? Well read my next post because I have to find a way to express how much I loved what I saw. Please share this post with your FB friends as well as your real friends. AND PLEASE make a comment.

Lions and Sunsets

We set out today at the crack of dawn. Our objective was lions. Yes, we had seen lions in Amboselli, but not up close. We ran into a vehicle with a flat tire and while Gideon stopped to help, we were able to get out and walk free on the savanna just like the animals. We used the time to enjoy the freshest air anywhere and just observe a sunrise on the Mara. By the way, Mara is a word in Masai that mean spotted, but applies to the land here which is spotted with bushes and trees, instead of covered like a jungle.

Mary Ann the great white tourist searching for game with her binocs with her back to a Mara sunrise.

Mary Ann the guide "Hey, I see Land Rovers gathering over there!

We quickly headed off to see what this herd of humans was viewing. We were pleasantly rewarded with a Momma lion and four kittens. What a great start for a day.

I probably shot two hundred photos of this little family. I told Gideon the kittens look cute enough to take home. He looked at me quite seriously and said "If you want to commit suicide, try."

Suddenly the whole family was interested in something behind us.

They were interested in a group of Zebras. Yum Yum.

Momma got up and looked like she would set off for a kill. But she thought better of it when...

...she remembered all the humans that were there!

We spent a lot of time enjoying the lioness. She and the babies did not pay us any attention. Their attention was riveted on a herd of zebras a mile away. I was hoping momma lion would get up and go catch one, but I was sure she would not leave the kittens behind.

We returned to the lodge for lunch and a nap. All the game drives take place in the morning and again in the afternoon because this is supposedly when the game are most active. There is a train of thought developing that the animals have gotten smart and are now most active while the humans are back in the lodges. It would not surprise me.

We had two objectives for our afternoon game drive. One was a black rhino, the toughest of the big five to see. The other was an adult male lion.

We had driven a long way when all of a sudden the radio went wild like it did the day before for the leopard sighting. Gideon did a bush style u-turn and said to me “You said you wanted to see lions mating. Well lions are mating and we are on our way.”  We flew over hill and dale, past herds of “boring” stuff like zebras and topis. We drove and drove. We got all shook and rattled in the vehicle. Then we came upon the scene. It looked like the paparazzi had found Paris Hilton mating. There were at least twenty pop top vehicles with people pointing cameras at these two poor lions.

Short of being a Gates or Zuckerman and being able to rent the entire park for yourself. modern day big white tourists just have to put up with this. Like I have said before, this is not even high season. There is a lot of online chatter about the parks in Kenya and Tanzania becoming nothing more than the wild life parks in the USA. Most of that chatter comes from the scientists who want the parks to themselves. But I argue that if we mere tourists see this spectacle of nature, will will be more inclined to help suppost it, somehow, after we leave. Additionally, there is nothing in any wild animal park that can compare with the vast open spaces of the savanna. I can compare it to Montana, Arizona and New Mexico from experience. The savanna wins. AND wait till you see the sunsets.

By the time we got to the lions, we were late, they were spent. The lioness looked like she was passed out. The male lion was not in much better shape. We took photos and waited. Gideon told us once they get started they mate 3 or 4 times and hour for 3 or 4 days. We waited for an encore, waited and waited. The male tried to rouse the lioness a couple of times but she was having none of it. I recorded all this for you my faithful readers, so please enjoy what passes for ‘Lion Porn’.

When we first arrived, the pair were in the afterglow, pillow talk stage.

"Wow" says the lion. "I have an audience."

"C'mon babe, time to put on a show for the great white tourists and earn our keep"

"Aw c'mon, please. We can't disappoint the tourists, some came all the way from Kansas"

"Tough luck for you. No show today. And do not forget, I may wear my hair like Don King, but I am the REAL King!

On the way home I took some nature shots and some sunsets, The Masai Mara is a photographers dream. I hope you enjoy the pictures.

I will start with some shots of trees and bushes.

This is called the whistling Thorn bush. It is the bush the Masai make their protective fences from. It is protected from most of the herbivores by two inch long thorns, except for zebras who have a way of eating the soft areas around the thorns.

Excuse me here while I give you a little lesson I learned on safari. You very often see large groups of wildebeests and zebras browsing together. In fact, the zebras accompany the wildebeests on their famous migration from the Masai Mara to the Serengeti and back every year. This migration follows the same circular route each year and corresponds to rainfall patterns, hence growing grass. The reason they travel together is that the zebra eat the tall grass, exposing low grasses to the wildebeests. During the migration, the carnivores feast. Lions and crocodiles get fat for the lean time. The crocodiles, in fact the largest crocs in the world, wait for the wildebeests and zebras to cross the Mara River. Thousands perish. The lions attack at will along the way. The other benefit the wildebeests get from the zebras is that when the lions attack, and the joint herds run, the black and white stripes of the zebras, in motion, confuse the lions.  Still, thousands more perish.

This is called the Masai Sausage tree. Those seed pods hanging down are the source of the indigenous alcoholic beverage of the Masai. They soak it with water and honey for a few days. Gideon, our guide, says that after two glasses you start seeing things.

OK, now to the iconic Masai Mara shots, the sunsets. Until this trip I never thought I would see a sunset finer, more striking or more memorable than the ones I watched from Maui. Hawaii move over, Africa has you beat.

The flat topped tree is an Acacia tree. The animal is a zebra.

I could watch them all day, if only they lasted more than a few minutes. On the equator, sunsets are shot lived phenomenon.

WOW, what an end to a perfect day.

Asante san for reading. Please share with your friends. Please make a comment. Please come back for my next post when HTT Holidays and Incentives takes us to Lake Naivashu and Crescent Island where you can walk right up to a giraffe and knock on his knee!

Our first day at the Masai Mara

We took off after a wonderful breakfast at the Lion Hill  lodge. The objective was to get to our lodge in Masai Mara National Park and the Sopa Lodge by 1:30 for lunch and the afternoon game drive.

By the way, if you ever go on safari in Kenya or Tanzania, I can recommend the Sopa chain without hesitation, and no, they are not paying me to say this.

Entrance to Masai Mara Sopa lodge

At 1:30 all I wanted was out of the vehicle. We had just spent an hour on the worst road I have been on in years. Gideon, who was working hard at the impossible task of missing potholes asked me if I could drive this road. I told him I had driven worse and described a road equally as beat up but in the mountains of Mexico where you had no room on either side to swerve because of the mountain on one side and a 2000 foot cliff on the other.  When I was done describing that experience I told him how glad I was he was driving instead of me by saying  “I’m to old for that shit anymore”. The road is the only road to Kenya’s most visited park. The government has fixed a lot of roads in the last couple of years, but for some reason, not this one.

All is well that ends well. We got to the lodge and checked into yet another very nice room. Before we could really rest, it was time for the afternoon game drive. We soon forgot about the drive to the park, in favor of the wonderful drive in the park.

This is the only single park in Kenya where if you are lucky and diligent, and have a good guide, you can see all the “big five”.  We got lucky, and we have a great guide.

Big game guides are no different, really, from fishing guides. Except they speak Swahili and Masai. When they pass each other on the road they share information just like the fishing guides. Except instead of asking ”Where are the lunkers”, they are asking “Where are the lions”. At least that is what I think they are asking. They might be swapping stories about the idiots they have in their vehicle that just will not be happy until they see lions mating.   I am one of those people. I told Gideon I would not be happy unless I saw something kill something, and animals mating. We both laughed at that, but an hour later, while we were observing a troop of baboons, he said, ”Look, baboons mating.” Sure enough. This being a full service blog, here is the photo.

Baboon style. Do I not try to include you in everything on my trips?

I never thought that at any point in my life would I say, “Big deal, another herd of elephants” or snidely comment “Oh boy, more gazelles.”  Nor did I think I would ever know the difference on sight between a lesser gazelle, a greater gazelle and an impala. I do now.

Oh Boy, another herd of wildebeests, yawn.

They are beautiful and they abound in the national parks in Kenya. I drove one of these when I was teenager, it was made by Chevrolet and not this pretty.

I have always wondered why no one ever domesticated the zebra. Gideon told me that the zebra has a weak back. I thought about that and said “too bad, it would be a beautiful sight to see a Masai warrior riding a zebra.”  I honestly think he likes my weird sense of humor, because he sure laughs at me. It is a wonderful thing to see herds of zebra grazing amongst gazelles and wildebeest out in the wild.

Ride'em Masai. Can you imagine a tall guy all dressed in red galloping across the Mara on this? Actually this is a tough shot to get. Zebras are shy and as soon as a camera appears they turn their ass to you. I have dozens of pictures of Zebra's behinds, just ask.

Masai Mara, being the most popular park in Kenya, even before high season, has quite a few visitors. This equates to quite a few vehicles out in search of game. They all have short wave radios in case they have a break down. But what they really use them for is sightings of the rarer animals. Today, as we were casually driving around, all of a sudden the normal chatter over the short wave rose to a euphoric level. Even though they were all speaking in Masai, I knew something big was up. Gideon did a four point turn and found a seldom used trail through the savannah and started hustling. “They spotted a leopard. We must go see the leopard.” Mind you, the leopard is one of the big five, and any guide worth his Shillings is going to make sure you see one.  We started flying across the open fields until we came to an established trail and headed to the leopard sighting. We turned a corner around some trees and BAM we were in the middle of a huge heard of buffalo. One thing buffalo are not is in a hurry. Another thing they are not is intimidated by a safari vehicle. They probably outweigh one and could redefine the term fender bender with those horns of theirs. Gideon was motivated. We had to see the leopard. He inched his way thru the herd and we were back on our fast paced quest.

Weaving our way through the herd.

Now the human herd started to appear. Vehicles were converging on the site where the leopard was from every point on the compass. They came on trails, across the fields and through ravines. No obstacle was going to stop any guide from treating his guests to one of the big five. Mary Ann and I started laughing. We could point in any direction and there was another Land Rover hell bent for leopard.

It was worth it. It was an incredible cat just meandering its way thru the bushes and fields. It had no concern for the human element. All the animals seem to know they are protected. Or maybe they know they cannot attack a vehicle. At this point in the history of human/big game relations there is a comfortable peace.

A leopard approaching you in this cat like manner makes you glad you are in a vehicle.

We were not the only ones there! It was amazing how the vehicles all arrived from every direction.

After we navigated our way out of the traffic jam, we noticed another group of vehicles. Could we be lucky again? YES! Gideon again made a bee line to the new sighting and we found our 4th of the big five. Not one but TWO cheetahs. They were laying in the shade watching the humans watch them. They had very obviously just consumed a rather large lunch. They looked too fat to even walk. These are the world’s fasted animals, but apparently not after a feast.

They were just trying to digest their lunch in peace...

...but the humans had other ideas.

I asked Gideon “if this were high season, how many vehicles would have come to see the leopards and the cheetahs?” He wistfully responded “at least a hundred.” It goes without saying, come to the Masai Mara before high season.

Again asante san for reading. Please hit share so your FB legions can enjoy it, and oh please make a comment.

Lake Nakuru, Flamingos, Hippos and Baboons, oh my.

We left Amboseli at 7:30 for an 8 hour drive to Nakuru Lake  National Park. The park is located ½ of a degree south of the equator, so I can definitely claim to be in equatorial Africa. The park and lake are  in the Rift Valley. This valley is over 9000 kilometers long and extends from Mozambique to Israel. It is a valley of legendary big white hunter tales. If you want to know a lot more go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Rift_Valley  I remember it best because  Richard and Mary Leakey have  done significant work in the valley.

Along the way we stopped at a view point and took in quite a bit of it in one vista.

The sign says it all

You are here!

Even overlooking the rift valley, Mary Ann can find a Yankee fan.

We could barely make these out from the overlook, but when we drove past them I was impressed to see them just miles away from where the Leakeys found one of the most ancient humanoids.

You are welcomed to the park by baboons.

The baboons sort of follow you around, like park rangers.

The park itself is very lush and green. It sits on a large salt water lake which provides sanctuary for millions of birds, especially Flamingos. This is not the peak time for the Greater Flamingo migration, but there were still tens of thousands of the lesser flamingos grouped along the shoreline turning it pink. There were thousands of white pelicans as well as guinea fowl and marabous. Time for photos? OK

Not one of the more beautiful birds, but of substantial size.

The trees surrounding lake Nakura were full of large birds

The helmeted guinea fowl is a favorite food of the Masai. Gideon told us you will never enjoy chicken after you have one of these. To catch them they soak corn in liquor and lay it out for the birds to eat. Then they get too drunk to fly or even run away.

The lilac breasted roller is truly fabulously colored in flight, but I missed it.

The flamingos in the background are lesser flamingos. They provide a beautiful pink rim to the lake. However, in July, there are thousands of thousands of greater flamingos that turn the whole lake pink.

We saw impalas, water buffalo, white Rhinos, waterbucks, and troops of baboons. I hope you enjoy these pics.

This was as close as I could get to a herd of white rhinos. The white rhino is not one of the big five. The black Rhino is because they are lot rarer and more elusive.

Baboons were everywhere in the park, just meandering around

Momma and baby baboon

We saw Impalas in every park we went to but I am partial to this shot.

Water buffalo and attendant birds. The birds eat insects dug up by the hooves of the buffalo and peck insects off their skin. Win win

I forget what Gideon said these were, but aint they cute?

We are staying at a place called Lion Hill Lodge. It is  fabulous. We are only here for one night, so I’ll  steal a towel.

We lost an hour of game viewing because an ATM ate Mary Ann’s card. Our tour agency HTT Holidays and Incentives (www.travelhtt.com) did everything short of ripping open the ATM machine with one of the Masai swords. They even lent us cash for the rest of the trip.  It all worked out because of the dedication of the HTT staff and our guide Gideon.

In the morning we head off to Masai Mara National Park. This is the big destination for great white tourists like us. We have already seen 2 of the big five and we look forward to checking off the other three. When we do, I feel like cracking open a bottle of champagne, except I hate champagne.

Maybe we will just have an extra Tusker. Tusker is the beer of Kenya.

Mary Ann enjoying a Tuskers. The brand was first marketed in 1923, shortly after the founder of Kenya Breweries Ltd, George Hurst, was killed by an elephant during a hunting accident. It was in this year that the elephant logo, that is synonymous with Tusker Lager, was incorporated. The slogan "Bia Yangu, Nchi Yangu", means "My Beer, My Country" in Swahili.

The national drink of Kenya is the Dawa. The Dawa reminds me of the Pisco Sour of Chile. It is an acquired taste sort of thing. I’ll certainly have couple more if I see a black rhino and a cheetah, the two most difficult sightings of the big five.

The Dawa African Cocktail is said to be so potent that it will cure whatever ails you. Since Dawa means "medicine" or "magic potion" in Swahili, I’ll believe it! The recipe is based on a famous Brazilian drink that was introduced to Kenya. It is now one of the most widely consumed cocktails in Kenya!

Dr. Dawa will cure your ills!

Asante san (Thank youu very much in Swahili) for reading. Please pass this along to a friend and please make a comment.

Mary Ann’s birthday with the Masai

Today was Mary Ann’s birthday and the birthday angels rewarded us with a marvelous game drive. We went out early and the critters large and small had all decided it would be a good idea to display themselves. Even Mount Kilimanjaro made an appearance.

The mountain came out to say happy birthday.

Another bucket list item accomplished. I never really thought I would stand at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro.

The birds were particularly displaying themselves this morning.

This bird, called a Grey Crowned Crane is actually quite common, We saw them everywhere in the bush.

Plus we saw herds of everything from Baboons to Zebras. I’ll get to that and show some pictures in a while. Bear with me while I tell you about visiting the Masai village.

The village was straight out of a National Geographic documentary. The houses were arranged in a circle. Each one was identical. They were made of cow dung. The entire village was surrounded by a fence about 8 feet high and six feet thick made from some very thorny bush called a whistling thorn bush. They do this to keep marauding animals out at night. The men make the fences, and the women build the houses.

All the houses are the same. They form a circle.

This fence surrounds the entire village. Homeland security Masai style

 

We were invited into a house. It had three rooms. The parents (mama and papa) slept in one room, all the children in another, and the third room was for cooking and eating. The cooking was done over a charcoal fire, or maybe a dung fire.

Mary Ann entering a house. Most the Masai men are taller than me so I cannot figure out why they made the doors so small.

Mary Ann inspecting the master bedroom.

The main room where the cooking is done.

There was an interior fence, as imposing as the exterior fence. This serves as a corral for the cattle at night, as well as for the goats. Cattle and goats are the mainstay of the economy and the diet of the Masai.

The entire village it seemed came out to greet us with a traditional dance and song number which of course included the vertical leaping of both men and women. They made me join the chorus line and had a good laugh at me trying to go vertical. I think these guys could stand flat footed under a basketball hoop and dunk. But they don’t play basketball. In fact I did not see any evidence of any sport. Making a living following around herds of domesticated animals protecting them from numerous predators must be sporting enough. Many of them had the brand on their cheeks. Tough hombres. Also, living in an Arab nation, and traveling a lot in Asia, India, and Nepal, I have gotten used to being the tallest guy in any room, at 6:1. Not here. I feel like a twelve year old hanging out around NBA players.

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They made me jump so they could laugh at me. they love to laugh. Notice I am carrying one of their big sticks. I was ready to fight off a lion! The stick was very hard and heavy. I felt well protected.

Our Masai guide around the village was the son of the chief. His name was John. As he talked to us I noticed a wonderful bracelet he was wearing. I asked him what it was made of. He said Elephant bone. I started to like it even more. I had on a silver and turquoise ring I picked up in India a few months back. I wore it on this trip because I was not attached to it, and if it got lost or stolen I would not think twice about it. I offered to trade him my ring for his bracelet. He did not want to talk about it in front of the other Masai men, and he simply said “later.” I did not know if that were a hip blow off like “later dude” or “we’ll talk later”.

John and his buddy.

Then they showed us how they make fire. They use a twig from an Acacia tree “from mount Kilimanjaro” and a stick from a cypress tree. Basically they do it like American Indians, or boy scouts. The men make fire every evening for cooking and the women come and take burning twigs home to light the charcoal.

I learned how to do this in boy scouts, but I respectfully acted amazed.

Then they asked me if I wanted to try. They made a little pyre of the dried dung they us as kindling and gave me the sticks. I sat down in front of it and pulled out my lighter. I said “White mans magic” ‘ We all got a good laugh.

It is easier with a lighter. But I tried. If I had to do this to light a smoke, I'd give up smoking

Then they took us around a corner where every woman in the village had stuff for sale. The Masai do a lot of things with beads. Where do they get the beads? Well, we did not get a good answer. It was a bit complicated to ask if they come from China, so I dropped that line of questioning. We bought a few doodads. My favorite was an ivory ring from an elephant tusk. I know I know, but if you could see how many elephants there are in Amboseli, and were realistic about them dying out in the swamps of old age, then I have no problem with the natives taking the tusks and doing something with them to make a buck. Later in the week I asked a park ranger “if an elephant dies of old age in the park,  is it OK to harvest the tusks?”. The answer was an absolute no. So, I asked “what happens to them?”.  She told me that all the tusks are brought to the ranger’s office in the park and stored away. I understand that, you do NOT want ivory on the market. But hell, Kenya could probably go a long way to paying off their national debt by selling the ivory.  Anyway, I love the ring.

When I put it on, I took off my turquoise ring and walked over to John.

“Ok let us talk trade” I said. He had already tried my ring on and not only did it fit, I could tell from the look on his face that he liked it.(Masai have never developed a poker face?) I figured it was because it would be unique in his tribe. I started thinking of the concept of a cargo cult or the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy”. (Google either one to get my point) He said to me “This was my Grandfather’s bracelet.” I figured that was bullshit, so I said back “This was my Grandfather’s ring. He traded with a Navajo chief in Arizona for it 80 years ago.” I am sure we both knew we were BSing the other but it took him about two seconds to take off the bracelet and take my ring. SCORE!

I asked Gideon if he knew another person was a Masia just by looking at him. First he said the Masai are usually tall and thin. They walk so much that you seldom if ever see an overweight Masai.  He told me two more things to look for. Masai sometimes pierce their earlobes and wear heavy ear adornments that make a huge gap in the earlobe. I had noticed that. The other thing to look for was a missing front bottom tooth. There is a sickness Masai infants sometimes get that does not allow them to open their mouth to eat. They pull the center tooth out so they can force feed them porridge. I now find myself looking for the missing tooth.

When we got back to the lodge and finished dinner, we walked outside under the stars. Mary Ann mentioned how beautiful they were. It dawned on me to look for the Southern Cross. I looked to where Kilimanjaro was, due south of us and looked up. There it was bright and beautiful, right over the tallest mountain in Africa.  It was thrilling to have that experience.  The Southern Cross is a wonderful sight from wherever you see it, but it was pretty special to know the mountain was right under it. My trip to Africa became even more real.

Ok Ok you want pictures of animals. Here we go.

Very close to the village, withing striking distance of where the Masai graze their cattle we saw our first lioness. She did nothing but lie there for fifteen minutes. Being a predator takes patience.

We never saw a hyena in the wild, but this is where they live, underground. There is a longtime study being done by Michigan State University to study hyenas. You will need to go to their website to figure out why.

These are wildebeests grazing in front of the iconic acacia tree. I have many close-ups of the wildebeests, but you are not missing anything, they are sort of ugly.

Papa, mama and baby elephant. It is reported that Amboseli has more elephants per sq kilometer than anywhere else. I BELIEVE IT! Just like the Masai, they walk in a straight line, even when they are in a herd.

Sometimes the elephants just stop in the middle of the road. Nothing you can do about it! This one has one of the birds that ride them and eat bugs off their skin in a perfect symbiotic relationship. Sometimes they hop off and pick at the elephant tracks for insects in the ground.

Whatever you do, never try to out stare and elephant!

Asante for reading. Please tell a friend and make a comment. The next post will concentrate on birds. See ya soon.

My Introduction to the Masai of Kenya at Amboseli

After a 5 hour drive SSW out of Nairobi we arrived at the Amboseli Sopa Lodge, located on the outskirts of Amboseli National Park.  The lodge is stunningly beautiful and comfortable. Yes, we are “in the bush.” I know, because there is no internet and cell phones do not work.  Actually the lodge has had internet, but it does not work anymore, and the cell phone coverage is limited to one carrier, the name of which is, wonderfully, Safaricom. The lodge provides every other creature comfort one would expect in an expensive lodge anywhere. The people who designed and built this place did not miss a detail. The woodwork is all hand carved with animal scenes. The bed has a big elephant head carving for the headboard.

The Sopa lodges are all very nice places to stay in both Kenya and Tanzania

The hotel sits near the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa. The mountain itself is actually in Tanzania. It is often covered in clouds and everyone hopes it makes an appearance.

Everything is in the style of the Masai tribe, from the curtains to the lamps and the rugs.  The bar, called the Hemingway Bar is huge and is reminiscent of the big white hunter days.  We are here two weeks before high season starts, and the place is almost empty. I think service here would be excellent if they were chock-a-block, it is incredible right now.

Great white hunter bar.

This is Masai country. The Masai people still “exist” just like you have seen in the movies. If you saw Out of Africa, and remember Robert Redford’s Masai servant, well that is how many of them still dress. I’m not talking about some show they put on for tourists. Uh Uh. I’m talking about how they dress out herding their goats or just walking cross country.   They are incredibly kind people and seem as interested in us as we are in them. Plug into this experience the fact that the national language is English and they all learn it in school, and the opportunity for cultural exchange is just incredible.

A Masai and I. (Screw the grammar, it rhymes)

Our guide happens to be Masai. His name is Gideon. All the Masai have baptismal names in English. We have him to ourselves for the entire week, just the two of us and large Land Rover with a pop up roof. I met a teenager on the road and we exchanged names. His was Evan. I told him mine and he said “like the bush?”

Before I try to describe our first game drive, I am going to pass on a few things I learned about the Masai today. I inherited the ability to ask nosey type questions from my mother, so sometimes I actually learn interesting things others might miss.

When you see a pair of Masai men walking together (actually one behind the other is the way they walk, not side by side) one of them will always be carrying a long stick. Even if two are on a motorcycle, one will have a long stick. I imagine that if two of them ever flew on an airliner they would sit one in front of the other, and one would have a large stick. I had to ask why. Gideon’s answer was “self protection.” He saw the perplexed look on my face and said “against animals.” Then he went on to say that the second fellow will always be carrying a sword or club strapped to his leg. To prove the point, he pulled out a two foot long formidable club from under his western cargo pants and said “we never leave home without it.” When I met Evan, he was carrying the big stick and I had to ask if he ever had to use it. All he said was “I have it if I need it.”  Gideon was standing with us. He reached under the Masai blanket (They wear them like robes) of the other young man and yanked an eighteen inch sword from a sheath strapped to his leg and said basically “we all carry.”  These people live every day amongst lions, hyenas and what not. Be prepared is not just a slogan for them.

The hats at the royal wedding cannot compare to this. Those are ostrich feathers in case you want to make your own.

Gideon told us that at age 15 the men get circumcised (ouch) and then spend up to a year wandering in the bush. To become a warrior, they have to kill a lion. If they do, they get branded with a hot piece of metal on their cheeks and thighs. The leader of the group must cut the tail of the lion before they kill it. I’m not sure they still kill lions, but that is the old way. Gideon only wandered for two months and then he had to get back to school. He is not branded. He has a University education in tourism. He had to learn a lot of Kenya history and of course flora and fauna. He is adding an incredible amount to our experience. Mary Ann and I are planning an enormous tip.

I was learning bits and pieces about the Masai all day, but one thing totally blew my hair back. Innocently I asked about their burial traditions. I had not seen a cemetery so I asked if they practice cremation. Now remember, the Masai of today are Christians. Gideon explained that what they do is shave the body, and cover it with oil. Then they slay a cow, skin it, wrap the deceased in the cow skin and take it out in the bush for the hyenas to eat. Then they feast on the cow. I would not have known if I had not asked, which just might put a damper on what else I ask. But probably not. Tomorrow we are taking a side trip to an off the tourist track true Masai village, where I Intend to learn as much as I can about these fascinating people. Having a Masai as an escort should break the ice nicely. The next post will cover that along with some truly cool animal shots!

Asante is Swahili (Kenya’s second language) for thank you. So Asante for reading and please pass this along to your friends on Facebook and in the real world also.

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